Eat Today, Eat Tomorrow

Eating TomorrowEat Today, Eat Tomorrow. Many of us have been advised not to talk while eating, but eating without talking is hardly ever an option. We often muse over many issues as we munch. Meal time offers a time to appreciate the culinary skills of the cook and the generosity of the person providing the meal. It can also be a time to reflect on the source of the ingredients used in preparing the meal, their modes of production and distribution. Tracing the route from the seed to the bowl can be extremely informative and often helps the eater to better appreciate the roles of the farmer in the process. While some have the luxury of ruminating on the art of food, almost a billion persons on earth go to bed hungry and are simply happy to have a meal when they can find or afford one.

The saying that we are what we eat underscores our responsibility to ensure that we eat healthy. We cannot wish to eat healthy if we do not devote time to examine the political economics of food, including ownership of seeds and access to land. We cannot ignore the players behind the processes by which seeds are cultivated in particular communities, nations or regions and the related farming inputs that go with such seeds and farming methods.

A book that should be a required read for public policy makers related to seeds, farming and food as well as farmers and consumers has just been published. That book is titled Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. It was released on February 5, 2019 and is written by Timothy A. Wise. The author, Wise is a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, where he directs the Land and Food Rights Programme. Wise is a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.

Eating Tomorrow is a book with three major sections. The first part speaks of Africa and the new Colonialism while the second part deals with what the author calls The Roots of Our Problems. The third section looks at trade regimes and how our Right to Food is being traded away. Reading the book has been quite a journey for me. The book is highly accessible and drips with wisdom and high-quality information. Raj Patel’s foreword to the book does not leave any reader in doubt about the seriousness of the matter under consideration. He states plainly in his opening lines, “More people are hungry today than yesterday. For the first time in a generation, global hunger is increasing. It’s not just the absolute number of malnourished people on the rise. The percentage of humans facing food shortages is climbing too.”

Patel goes on to add, “Industrial agriculture is an engine for the exploitation of humans and the web of life.” He also added, “If you want to invent pandemic disease, you couldn’t imagine a better laboratory than the hells of concentrated animal feeding operations, in which the constant drip of antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for the next deadly swine or bird flu. Along the food production line, workers in the food chain are treated as brutally as the product they butcher. And a complex web of social and ecological subsidies allows the system to produce food that appears as a bargain but is increasingly likely to contribute to chronic disease and ecological destruction.”

Wise and Patel underscore the fact that policy should be people driven. A person’s stand with regard to the health of the planet and people greatly influences the manner of interpretation and analyses of complex situations. And here we should say that those promoting modern biotechnology are welcome to promote their pet projects, but characterizing those opposed to these risky experimentations as “enemies of the state” is nothing but hate speech and is highly unbecoming of anyone wearing the toga of a scientist. Autocratic force-feeding of citizens with genetically modified foods just because the outcome of laboratory experiments validates a hypothesis is actually opposite to patriotism.

Wise is not shy of taking clear positions on the food and farming debate. Writing from research experience from the field, he quotes small scale farmers referring to “Climate-Smart Agriculture” as “Climate-Stupid Agriculture”. The fact presented is that farmers have developed climate adaptation strategies including intercropping, soil improvements and drought resistant varieties. Getting farmers to abandon the seeds that ensure diversity and soil building for chemical and artificial inputs, open the farmers to vagaries of often manipulated market forces. He notes that the high use of insecticides and herbicides end up literally leaving soils lifeless.

Besides examples from Asia, Latin America and North America, much of the book focuses on Africa and provides plenty of food for thought for our governments. He reminds us that the food crisis of 2008 was triggered by the massive diversion of food and land into biofuel production and the surge of speculative capital rather than on scarcity. In Nigeria, indeed in Africa as a whole, we are constantly being fed with the neo-Malthusian fear of humungous rise in population and fears of scarcity – the very hooks used by predatory agribusiness and supporting governments to dispossess poor farmers of their lands and force them into becoming farmhands or sharecroppers.

Wise gives examples of massive land grabs on the continent that failed either due to popular resistance or due to the wrong headedness of the schemes. Examples include the ProSavana project driven by Brazilian and Japanese investors, that sought to grab up to 10 million hectares of fertile lands in Mozambique and the spectacular failure of jatropha as a miracle biofuel crop in Africa.

African governments accepted the notion that jatropha and other crops were needed to build a green OPEC in Africa as proposed in 2006 by then president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. It was said to grow on marginal lands and since the fruits or seeds were not edible they would not compete with food crops. But jatropha planted on marginal soils only yielded marginal returns. Proponents of jatropha ended up grabbing massive land areas and this was accompanied by degradation of agricultural lands, in Swaziland, Mozambique and Tanzania. After the failure of the experiments, we hardly hear of jatropha being touted as the miracle biofuel crop. Silently, the crop has returned to its veritable use as a hedge crop and as a marker of the graves of those who died far from home as is the case with the nomadic Nyaburu people of Tanzania.

Eating Tomorrow reveals how government policies are often based on pressure from transnational seed and inputs companies as well as politically powerful nations bent on dumping surpluses from their own farming outputs. We also read about the place of Bill Gates and Rockefeller funded Alliance for a Green revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition launched in 2012. The architecture of the Alliance is that “Donors would provide aid; private companies like Cargill, Yara, Monsanto, and DuPont would make a non-binding promise to invest and participating African governments would commit to reforming their national laws and regulatory systems to ‘enable the business of agriculture.’”

Wise reports on the resilience of indigenous crop varieties in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique and how externally driven policies have been very harmful to farmers and farming, forcing poor farmers to buy seeds each year and only benefiting international agribusinesses and other speculators. Monoculture cropping, in the words of Wise “produces monoculture diet deficient in many basic nutrients.”

The scope of this column does not allow us do a comprehensive review of this all-important book, and we will probably return to it in the future. Eating Tomorrow is a book that goes beyond diagnosing problems and offers real solutions. It fittingly closes by stressing that we all have the right to eat safe and healthy food and that we should not be content with only eating today but also work to ensure that we eat tomorrow. This is the crux of the struggle for food sovereignty and against the wholesale adoption of policies and practices built around aid, philanthropy or trade relations.

 

In Pursuit of Our Collective Wellbeing

Transparent green ballot box, vote for the Earth

credit: future pics

Voting for Our Collective Wellbeing . As the polls open tomorrow, Nigerians are faced with hard choices. These challenges include deciding whether to vote on the basis of political party affiliations, or to vote on the basis of the perceived standing of individual contestants. We watched the signing of the peace agreement with interest. The pledges made imply readiness to ensure decent voting and acceptance of results of the polls without recourse to violence. It was interesting to see the number of presidential candidates that stood up and moved to the podium when they were called up. The moderator of the event had to keep announcing that only candidates were called up to sign the agreement and not their aides. The crowd of dozens of candidates would make you think that party members were climbing a campaign platform.

This unfolding election cycle indicates that it is time for more new contestants to step up for the highest offices in the land. At present, most of the candidates and parties could not be distinguished from one another on the basis of differences in political programmes and leadership ideas as only a few brought up ideas that are outside the dominant and hugely discredited neo-liberal mould. By the time the polls are over and victories and defeats are accepted by the candidates, the issue will be whether the generality of people will be happy with the choices they made and if they would continue to endure the recycling of failed promises and the politics of personal charisma instead of one set around organising ideas with potential to build a viable and alternative socio-economy system.

Each election season provides the nation with an opportunity to choose the pathway to a preferred future. If the choices made are not based on a vision for tomorrow, then the exercise becomes a wasted opportunity. This is truer for the youths than for those in the twilight of their days as it is the youths that would have to live in the evolving future. Happily, the young ones are stepping up.

At the global level, we see children and youths stepping forward to denounce the way politicians are toying with their future. This is clearly illustrated by the Climate Strikeinspired by the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg. The call for climate action has found support from many quarters including from 224 academics who issued a statementstating “We the undersigned academics, stand in solidarity with the children going on school climate strike on 15 February, and with all those taking a stand for the future of the planet.”

Most of the candidates presenting themselves at the polls in this election season have paid little attention to climate change or other environmental concerns, even though these pose dire existential threats to the peoples. Promises of employment cannot be realised in a dead environment. As labour unions insist, there are no jobs in a dead planet. At the community level, we see clearly that there is neither life nor livelihoods in dead environments. And, no votes, except imagined and concocted ones.

Promises of privatisations and the increase of ease of doing business largely translate to preparing the grounds for intensified trashing of the environment and roughshod over the interests of the people. Touting a rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a sign of economic health ignores the fact that the GDP does not measure the wellbeing of the people or nation, but probably is a measure of a nation’s Gross Domestic Problemas Lorenzo Fioramonti – the academic turned politician – referred to it  in his outstanding book of that title. The GDP as an economic measure has had its day and should duly be retired.

As Nigerians go to the polls we cannot avoid reflecting on the future of the nation and ask questions as to what we must fundamentally change to take us to a future that affirms that “the labour of our heroes past shall not be in vain.” How have we arrived at where we are today and where are we headed?

We need to begin to build systems that recognise the interconnectedness of local as well as global conditions which threaten our common humanity while consciously working towards overturning such conditions. Irrespective of whether the young or old guards get elected at the current polls, the process to make this happen should be the concern of the youths in preparation for the 2023 polls. There is not a moment to waste. The deconstruction of an undesirable present and the construction of a preferred future must begin now.

Youths have  unique tools and abilities to organise and these must be turned into political advantage. And, when brilliant politically engaged youths speak, any characterisation of the enunciation of their ideas as motivational speeches must be confronted and denounced. In fact, being motivational should be a virtue and not something to be denigrated. Nigeria needs leaders that can motivate the people for positive action rather than getting sucked into a cycle of immoral political behaviour.

The starting blocks towards effective political engagement will require the building of solid political communities that recognise the vital necessity of collective decisions and actions as means of bringing about the needed socio-ecological transformation. It is such a transformation, evolved through practice, that would build a wellbeing economy in contrast to the current system of competition and incomprehensible accumulation of resources for personal rather than for the common good.

world map shaped smoke rise form factory chimneyWe need a system in which the state of our nation is measured by indicators that reflect the reality and quality of life of our peoples; one that recognises the root causes of the poverty in the midst of plenty, and that is willing to challenge and work to eliminate such conditions. By her geopolitical position, Nigeria owes Africa a duty of providing thoughtful leadership. It will be a missed opportunity if by the next election season, the brilliance of the youths is obscured or placed under the table and the ideas that would challenge the continued marginalisation of our people through ecological degradation and social disruptions are not taken up and pursued. The youths hold the key in this pursuit.

 

 

Dining on Genetically Engineered Pesticides

thumb_img_0761_1024-2.jpgEating Genetically Engineered Pesticides. All through the ages, in the development of agriculture, humans have selected and cultivated crops and animals that thrive in their environments and are good for their health. Some of the factors that determine what we love as food are highly sensory and include the texture, taste, colour and their smell. Taste, for example, can drive people to eat things they know are not good for their health. Besides, people may tilt to a food product due to the power of suggestion through advertisement on the mass media.

Food can be an instrument of control and power. Weather variations and extreme weather events can bring communities and nations to their knees. Violent conflicts and wars can also render people hungry and expose them to the need to receive or purchase food aid. Yes, some food aids are paid for and are not exactly humanitarian. One nation that stood her grounds and insisted on what sort of food aid was acceptable is Zambia. They rejected the genetically engineered grains that were extended to them as food aid in 2002. And although much political pressure was piled on the nation, they did not starve but transited to bountiful harvest the following year. In the case of Nigeria, after the devastation of agriculture of the Northeast, we have received tones of seeds without verifying if they were genetically modified or not. That is how much food aid can trump caution.

What do consumers look for when they go shopping for groceries? Research has shown that consumers that care to read the labels on the food products prefer to buy those that are pesticide free and are not genetically modified. Generally, buyers prefer fresh, clean and natural products.

Unfortunately, many of our foods in Nigeria are sold in measures using cups and basins. Foods such as beans, garri, corn, amala, and the likes are often neither packaged nor labelled. You simply have to trust your eyes to tell you whether what you are buying is wholesome or not. And, our people hardly read the labels on the packaged products on the market shelves. They may read the brand names and pay less attention to the contents. Agencies saddled with policing our borders against entry of unauthorised foods, such as the ones that are made of genetically engineered materials, appear overwhelmed by the influx of these products. Products are imported without much filtering with the assumption that whatever is presented as food is safe. It is as if it is assumed that because a thing was made in the United States of America, for instance, then it must be good for our consumption. We simply do not know what we are eating. However, we should care to know as our health depends on that knowledge and our choice.

Regulators and promoters of genetically engineered crops and foods in Nigeria accuse those that question the technology of being fear mongers or anti-science. This may be dismissed as a hollow accusation, but when they make such arguments frequently, the real fear is that they may believe themselves. Besides, they also believe that they are running the best biosafety system in Africa and that other countries such as Burkina Faso who junked genetically engineered cotton, cannot be compared to the supposed high skills and facilities Nigeria boasts of. This arrogant posturing is extremely dangerous.

When scientists produce genetically engineered beans (cow pea), do they consider the fact that the insecticidal beans could also kill non-target organisms and that even the target pests could develop resistance? When crops are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, do they consider that they kill other plants and not merely weeds? And what about the soil microorganisms they kill thereby disrupting the webs of life in the ecosystems?

Working beneath the supervisory radar, the promoters of these technologies are set to erode our biodiversity and set the stage for ecological harm. Nigeria has quickly become the testing ground for novel and risky technologies, exposing citizens to next levels of danger. With regards to the recently approved genetically engineered beans, we note that this beans variety with the transgene Cry1Ab used in its transformation, has not been approved anywhere else in the world. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) may have concluded field trials for a cassava variety that has never been planted anywhere else in the world. That cassava was engineered to produce starch that would last longer than normal before degrading.

All these genetically engineered events are prepared overseas and brought for testing in Nigeria and yet we boast that we are so equipped and innovative in the sector.

If anyone tells you that the producers of genetically engineered crops (and foods) are cocksure of their products, ask them why they fight against nations having strict liability clauses in their Biosafety laws. Uganda just inserted such a clause in their genetic engineering regulatory law, ensuring that makers of GMOs will be held liable for any harm that may come from cultivation or consumption of their products at any time, even if such effects come years down the road. Since that law was enacted, scientists have branded President Museveni and the Ugandan parliament as being anti-science. In other words, good genetic engineering science must leave room for doubt and when harms manifests, the producers should not be held strictly liable. That posture puts the Precautionary Principle on its head. That principle is the bedrock of Biosafety regulation. It simply means that where there is doubt, we should be cautious. The speed with which Nigeria is permitting GMOs is highly suspicious and offers no assurance that the government is concerned about food safety and the preservation of our biodiversity.

Nigerians must be mindful of what we buy, cultivate or eat. We can bet that no one will knowingly eat an insecticide. But that is what we do if we eat any crop genetically engineered to be insecticidal.